Germinal: Émile Zola’s Masterpiece

germinal-zola-810x600

Germinal is Émile Zola’s masterpiece, and I am fairly typical in thinking (and I have only read it in translation) that it contains his most brilliant writing, with exceptionally evocative passages of lyrical strength, and brilliant word pictures. It depicts a miner’s strike – with unsparing realism and remarkable sympathy.

When  my daughter asked me to recommend some of the most strongly written books that I had read, this was one.

I wrote in my last post that Zola had a fear of the untrammelled power of the working people. In this novel, however, his sympathies are entirely with them.  With unsparing honesty, he depicts the starvation, despair, and resulting violence that follows from the miners’ attempts to gain a living wage.

Zola was always meticulous in carrying out research. For this novel he went to northern France in 1884, where he witnessed a miners’ strike in Anzin, while at Denain he went underground to view working conditions. He always defended his depiction as realistic, aganinst the attacks by indignant critics, who accused him of exaggerating the horrors of the pit workers’ conditions for dramatic effect.

Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future. This is, in fact, the note on which the book ends. For all the distressing scenes that are depicted, the story ends in the spring, on a note of regeneration.

Over to Wickipedia for an excellent concise summary of the plot: –

The novel’s central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L’Assommoir (1877), and originally to have been the central character in Zola’s “murder on the trains” thriller La Bête humaine (1890) before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise. The young migrant worker arrives at the forbidding coal mining town of Montsou in the bleak area of the far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.

Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola’s genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors’ traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne’s motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne’s simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).

While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu’s daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola’s later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners’ lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist’s best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army that repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola’s best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.

MV5BNzdiYjhjOGMtNjQ1Zi00NGViLThlN2UtOTllYjk3NDY2MTAzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzk4OTI2MjM@._V1_There are many vivid characters in this novel, and perhaps the one who overshadows them all is inanimate: Le Voreux, the dread consumer of huaman flesh, the pit  in which the local miners and cart pushers labour for their lives.

Perhaps the most  horrific scene – and one of the most grotesque in all of Zola’s novels, which include a great deal in the way of horror and of the grotesque – is depicted in the scene where the rioting and starving locals attack the local grocer’s shop. The grocer falls to his death trying to escape via the roof, and the women, whom he has sexually abused in exchange for credit, enact a terrible revenge on his corpse: –

‘And then, with her old, withered hands, La Brúlé parted his naked thighs and seized hold of his now defunct manhood. She grabbed the whole thing in one hand and pulled, her bony spine tense with the effort, her long arms cracking. When the flabby skin refused to give, she had to pull even harder, but finally it came away, a lump of bleeding, hairy flesh, which she proceeded to brandish in triumph…’

By contrast, one of the most moving – indeed, near transcedent – moments in the novel is  when the cynical engineer Paul Négrel, the nephew of the owner of the mine, who is quite happy to deceive his uncle by carrying on an affair with his aunt by marriage,  who has been the bitter enemy of the militant Étienne, comes together with him in huamnity. After the collapse of the pit, he labours tirelessly and devotedly, night and day to ensure that Étienne, Chaval and Catherine are rescued from their underground prison.

When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –

‘These two men who despised each other, the rebellious worker and the sceptical boss, threw their arms around each other and sobbed their hearts out, both of them shaken to the very core of their humanity. ..’

As I said in my last post, while readers generally may not be attracted to reading the twenty novels in the series of Les Rougon-Macquart  , to neglect reading Germinal is to miss out on a true work of genius.

I have to say that I found Étienne’s love interest Catherine, insipid. While it might be argued that this was after all typical of a Victorian novel, and that her background is such that it is impossible for her to have developed much independence of thought or as an older daughter who had both to work in the pit and to labour in the house, had the leisure even to have much individuality, she still comes across as dull compared to Zola’s other female characters from humble and hard working bacgrounds, ie, the heroine of La Terre.  

This does seem to me a weakness in the structure of the novel. I certainly take the point that Cahterine is intended to be a victim, seduced by Chaval before her delayed puberty has come about. But Étienne’s  fascination with her is unconvincing, and so the desperate hatred between himself and Chaval is too.

Compared to all the admirable features in this book, though, this, and a certain tendency at times, ever present in Zola, to overdramaticise, are hardly very important. Catherine, with her passive surrender to abuse from a man she does not really love in Chaval, is not a female lead that a modern female reader can find appealling., however truly pathetic she might find her.  But in such characters as Catherine’s own mother and  the independent minded Mochette,  there is a good deal of feminine indpendence depicted throughout the story.

Zola was rightly proud of  his achievement.  It caused a senasation on its appearance and remains widely read to this day, having inspired several films, and being regarded as one of the most signicicant of all French novels.

 

 

Advertisements

Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’: A Harrowing Depiction of Poverty in the UK of the Early Industrial Revolution.

marybarton

I have recently been re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’. I thought I had long since written a review of it; it seems not.

This is, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, published in 1847. It established her reputation as a writer who sympathized with the poor and oppressed, the workers in industrial Lancashire who were voiceless in the government of the country, and who suffered hideously during the times of economic depression.

In this, she resembled Charles Dickens. He was in fact her later publisher when she wrote for his magazine ‘All The Year Round’. Like him, too, she had a great dread of the rampant mob, and shares the almost morbid fear of trade unions which he showed in ‘Hard Times’. In the novel Gaskell depicts trade unionists with unintentional comedy, as having a conspiratorial aspect almost akin to a lot of Gunpower Plotters.

This, no doubt, was partly due to the fact that she was writing the novel in the era of  the Chartist protests, which co-incided with the outbreak of revolution throughout much of Europe.  The Chartist leadership was strongly divided over those who espoused peaceful methods and those who considered that they must win power by ‘Reason if we may,  by force if we must’.  Elizabeth Gaskell was a devout Christian who recoiled from violence and was shocked by the mutual antagonism of the mill owners and their nameless ‘hands’ who comprised their workforce.

The original protagonist of the novel was not Mary Barton, but her father John Barton, and this probably explains why he in fact comes across as a more fully realised character than his daughter’s love interest, Jem Wilson. Jem is accused of the murder that John himself has committed of the mill owner’s son, the caddish and handsome Harry Carson.

He has been angling to make Mary his mistress, though in her naivety, she thinks that he is interested in marriage. Eventually, in fact, when he realises that she won’t become his mistress he does make her an offer of marriage, which she scornfully rejects (no doubt Richardson’s Pamela would be astonished by that). By then, she realises her folly in rejecting Jem, who following his own failed proposal, is assiduously keeping away from her.

Jem is warned about Mary’s danger from Harry Carson by Mary’s Aunt Esther, who subsequently deserted by her lover, had taken to prostituion to support their child, and after her death, become a drunkard.  She has been keeping a covert watch on the Barton household, and wishes at all costs to keep Mary from suffering the same fate as herself.

Jem confronts Harry Carson, and they come to blows, but a policeman separates them. When he is later murdered, Jem is the natural suspect.

Now Mary resolves to save him from the gallows…

There are some harrowing descriptions of poverty and misery in the book, and the author leaves the reader in no doubt of her moral outrage that such conditions should be allowed: –

‘Never was the old Edinburgh description of gardez-l’eau more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women at the doors tossed out slops of every description into the gutter; they ran and overflowed into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated…our friends were not dainty, but they picked their way till they got to some steps leading down into a small area..You went down one step into the cellar…It was very dark inside. The window panes of many of them were broken and stuffed with rags…

…After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can  be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down…They began to penetrate the thick darkness, and of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay, wet, floor…They clustered round Barton, and tore from him the food he had brought with him..’

In fact, the mill owners of Manchester were offended at what they saw as Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfair portrayal of their indifference to the sufferings of the mill workers. They were better pleased with her later novel, ‘North and South’ where their viewpoint is depicted more sympathetically.

In this novel, certainly, Mr Carson, whose son is ritually assassinated as a sort of ‘legitimate target’  in a piece of terrorism by John Barton – who despairs of anything short of this moving the obdurate mill owners – is a highly unappealing character, who only arouses the reader’s pity after the death of his prized son. His wife, though thinly skethed, is another. Once a mill worker herself, having produced upwards of four children, has taken to indulging her ill health and treats her servants as her natural inferiors.

9780486812496

Harry Carson is also thinly sketched,  which as he is to some extent the antagonist, is a shame. Had he been given a sronger role, the extent of Jem’s victory, over both his own jealousy towards Carson, and Carson’s attractions as a rival  love object for Mary, would be more striking.

The trade union leader is depicted as a wily opportunist, rather on the lines of Plutard (I think that was his name; I’m being too lazy to look it up) in Zola’s ‘Germinal’.  Perhaps he is depicted that way as a counter to the unsympathetic bourgoise in the novel, but one gets the impression that Elizabeth Gaskell could  not credit that anyone could be a dedicated trade unionist and Chartist without being either fanatical or self seeking…

Jem Wilson is depicted as a wholly admirable working man, capable of selfless devotion, and handsome ‘save for the marks of smallpox’, with dark curling hair and a stalwart build. Outstandingly brave, he rescues his father and another workmate from a blazing mill. It is typical of him that he should oppose women working, but one has to remember that his mother’s experience of work has left her disabled as a result of an accident with unguarded machinery.

Mary Barton, very pretty, well meaning and often wilfully opposed to her own best interests, is a good characterisation of a young girl of sense with some silly notions. Her realisation that she loves Jem, only after she has turned down his proposal, is vividly recounted.

John Barton, demoted from his place as protagonist as he may have been,  is the character who makes the greatest impression on the reader. His personal tragedies – he has lost a son through poverty and loses his wife in childbirth – a death he blames on the shock she sustains when her sister runs off with an army officer – embitter him. Still,  he never loses his devotion to the working people and his determination to relieve their suffring.  In the scene described above, where he helps the Davenport family, he sells his last possessions of value to buy them food and medicine.  When the petition on the condition of the workers he delivers to parliament is contemptuously rejected and the recession worsens and want increases, he becomes desperate. Unemployed and black listed as a trade unionist, he turns to violent methods to change the minds of the masters.

John  Barton, then, is a believable flawed tragic hero, and the ending when the older Carson is able to forgive him makes a moving conclusion to the story.

Mary’s fight to prove Jem’s innocence is well told. Her admitting in court that she loves Jem would have been astoundingly indpendent behaviour in a Victorian heroine. Many critics disagree with Raymond Williams objection, that the story’s change in theme from the political to the domestic entails a weakening of its theme.

It is worth noting that in this first novel, the character of the sailor as a dashing racounteur is depicted in Will Wilson, Jem’s cousin. This character, no doubt partly based on fond memories of her own lost brother,  was a type Elizabeth Gaskell was to develop in Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ and Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvi’a’s Lovers’.

Will Wilson is a straightforward version, a touching combination of the boastful and the modest, who falls  in love with the dowdy and virtuous Margaret Leigh when  he heards her sing.  He lacks either the sophistication of Frederick Hale, or the moral dubiousness of Charley Kinraid.

Jem, for his part, is depicted as – despite his aversion to women working – a wholly more attractive rival to the dashing Harry Carson than the melancholy Philip Hepburn is to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvias Lovers’ . ‘Mary Barton’ is a novel which ends  happily for the two sets of young lovers, Mary and Jem, Will and Margaret, in complete opposition to the tragic conclusion to that later novel.

The ending is a good deal less happy for John Barton, of course, who must face the consequences of his crime. As a matter of fact, parents usually fare badly in Gaskell’s novels. ..

That this happy ending for the young people has to take place in Canada, not the UK, is in itself  a dismal comment on the prospects for workers in what was then the ‘workshop of the world’.

41d0-G63AjL._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Those Dreaded One Star Reviews: What They May or May Not Mean.

170px-Cordelia_-_William_Frederick_Yeames
“I don’t deserve this!”

A writing colleague of mine was really upset by getting her first one star review. This had gone up on both Amazon and Goodreads. It seems that the purchaser had been so eager to spread the bad news about this appalling book that she had even gone to the trouble of opening an account at Goodreads to post it as her first book read.

Well, I didn’t say, as many hardened writers say, ‘Join the club; any Indie Author has to learn to shrug off destructive reviews.’  

That may be true, but it seemed a bit insensitive.

You do your best to give your readers the most gripping read that  you can, and then someone dismisses it as worthless rubbish, urging everyone not to waste their money.

Hmm. They are undeniably painful, getting those one star reviews, and unless you want to look unprofessional, there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about them. The only time I respond is when someone complains of errors, textual or historical. Then, being a bit of a prig about grammar and research, I politely ask the reviewer to point them out to me so I can rectify them if necessary.

Amazon and Goodreads readers of your book can say anything that they like – however untrue – about your writing in an effort to discourage anyone from making the same mistake that they did, and buying your book. That nothing happens for 98 per cent of it, say; or that these are the dullest, least sympathetic characters that s/he has ever had the misfortune  to encounter.  

That’s the downside of the technology that makes self publishing possible.

Generally, though, there is one comfort. Most one star reviews tend to be of the ‘couldn’t get into it don’t waste your money’ variety. I find it hard to believe that any discerning reader is gong to take those seriously.

And do most self published authors want undiscerning readers? Well, maybe we do, just a bit; the ones who are undiscerning in our favour…

My colleague’s reviewer insisted furiously that the book was ‘BORING!!!!!!! BORING!!!!!! BORING!!!!!!’

Well,  I have found large sections of many classics frankly boring, ‘Wuthering Heights’ ‘Vanity Fair’ ‘Tom Jones’ and much of Dickens to name just a few, so my writer friend is in good company in boring readers. 

Regarding this particular review, though, I pointed out to my colleague that there was a discrepancy between the indignant tone and the reader’s furious insistence that s/he found the characters dull and the action wholly uninteresting.

If I’m really bored by a book, I start to lose concentration. My mind wanders to that meeting with my older relative next Sunday, where she’ll tell me once more about her coming knee operation. In my excitement over this, I forget the name of the lead characters in the book, or what s/he was doing in the last chapter which led to what is happening now.

ZZZZZ..,What?

Oh yes:  I was reading… 

He flashed his brilliant white teeth in a menacing smile.

A young girl like you certainly shouldn’t be out alone in a place like this.’

Suddenly, Ludmilla realised that he was one of the gang of young Wolfmen who were terrorizing the city. In fact, he was none other than their leader. How could she not have realized this, the minute he began to follow her home?’

That’s just what I was about to ask myself. Self Defence Step One! ‘If someone starts following you, get ready for trouble.’ 

Still, to continue:

Do you care for a bowl of Doggie Munchies?’ Ludmilla asked kindly… Then she noticed again the slight limp, no doubt the result of that fight with the rival gang. “Maybe you would prefer a knee operation?’

Me: ‘Oh no, that was my imagination taking over. Ludmilla doesn’t make any such helpful suggestions. I just dozed off again. This book is a perfect cure for insomnia. I must read it every night. Probably most readers as bored as this would rate it with two stars, but I’ll give it two and a half stars, rounded up to three, if I can ever get to the end, that is…’

Being a writer myself, I am probably much more scrupulous about handing out low star ratings than many readers. As I have often said, I have to come across something like a story that suggests that wife beating is OK, or one that romanticizes rape to give a one star rating.

Still, I do think my nonsense above is probably more typical of how you react to a book that bores you than ranting. Far from becoming angry; you can hardly concentrate. You feel far too torpid to rush to write a review using capital letters and exclamation marks, let alone troubling to open a new account with a website to repeat what you’ve said.

I suspect that that particular reviewer and others who write that a book is BORING!!!!!!!, are in fact, more outraged than bored by it.

 Whatever it is that has disturbed them – it might be sexual content, a piece of religious heresy, or any other contentious matter – a comic fat character, perhaps – they prefer to insist that they were ‘bored’ rather than angry. After all, it sounds a lot more sophisticated – even a trifle Byronic – and it might put off more readers.  Also, that way, the reader avoids admitting that this book really had an impact on her or him.

Besides, as I pointed out to the writer, as that reader admitted she had to keep on skim reading to the end, that’s really good.  I personally regard anyone reading to the end of mine as a victory, even if they hate every word. If someone has to find out what happens, even if s/he detests the characters and the plot, then the author’s won her/him over into that fantasy world and got a grip on the imagination, and that’s just what any fiction writer wants.

Finally, until next time, here’ s an image of something to do with stars that brings everything into perspective….

220px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_Nevada

The Milky Way…

Next Post: Scathing Reviews Part Two: Those Unsympathetic Characters.

Some Thoughts on a Forgotten Classic: ‘This is the Schoolroom’ by Nicholas Monsarrat.

141208154807-uk-austerity-london-1930s-1024x576
Speaker in an impoverished UK street in the 1930’s.

I have just finished reading Nicholas Monsarrat’s ‘This is the Schoolroom.’  It’s just under 450 pages long in the version I read – no short read.

No guesses for where I first saw it – back as a teenager,  on my parents’ bookshelves – though this was a book deliberately bought, not one come by as a job lot at an auction, like the Charles Garvice books and so much of the other stuff.

I didn’t read it then, though. I resolved to read it at some point in the future.

Well, it’s taken me long enough.

While ‘The Cruel Sea’ is still read along with, I believe, ‘The Tribe That Lost its Head’ – which I gather has been attacked as displaying typical colonial attitudes – I don’t think many people these days have even heard of, ‘This is the Schoolroom’. Trust me to be awkward and read it, then.

This is a book set in the UK of the thirties, and so as a matter of course is to some extent about the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War, the role of British socialists on opposing the role of fascism, and all the rest of it.

‘“I was unusually drunk the night my father died”. So opens the story of Marcus Hendrycks, maturing in that turbulent decade – the 1930s. A man who had been playing with life for 21 years, while all around him were discordant voices, hunger and death. Discovering the poverty and filth of the slums, enduring the horrors of war-racked Spain, through politics and through love, his was a pilgrimage through a world teetering on the edge of disaster. .’

I was in two minds about it. There are parts of powerful writing, but I couldn’t take to the protagonist, though he was sincere, and changes soon enough from the spoilt rich kid at Cambridge we meet in the first chapter.

366029_3
Trinity College Cambridge in the 1930’s.

He does have inherent strength, with which he meets all disasters. He meets the family’s financial collapse and the inability or refusal of his wealthy, self indulgent uncle to do anything to help him in the way of getting a job with a ‘stiff upper lip’.

At first, he lives in a shabby genteel boarding house  – shades of The Rosamund Tea Rooms in Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ .

During this time, what he regards as his love affair with a society girl whose rent he was paying comes to an end when he can no longer afford to spend £30 on weekends with her (a reasonable wage then was about £5 a week).

As his money runs out, and his career as a journalist fails to take off, he then moves in an unpleasant room infected at one point with some form of bug that lives behind the wallpaper. Here he helps a neighbourng woman giving birth until the arrival of the doctor  (I found the fact that none of the women rose to the occasion and helped her, leaving it to a man with no medical background, frankly incredible).

He hears another women being abused by a back street abortionist, and later discovers her dead body (the man has fled).

Later, a ‘show girl’ he knows , at first seemingly amused by his sordid surroundings, gets up to leave in disgust when the local pimp puts his head in at the door. The protagonist ‘Asks a question of extreme particularity without any preamble whatsoever. At all events, she said, “No, of course not,” with an air of finality which would have made Casanova blink.’

So far it is funny, but then – and this is one of the things that made me find the protagonist unsympathetic – he tries what seems to be borderline rape: –

‘An astonishingly crude wrangle ensued, on the lines of, “It’s a little late to back out now,” from me, and “It’s only your filthy mind,” from Helga, a wrangle followed by – well, lets call it ‘masterful persuasion’ and this in turn withered away before the cold and malignant fury with which she countered it, and degenerated into the blackest sulk I have ever wrapped myself in. The ‘starvation’ of the last few months probably had made me a little uncouth, but damn it, I thought, she had promised, she had been prophetically sweet all the evening, she had seemed as willing as I had been counting on…’

‘Finally, she raised one cool eyebrow. “Anything to say?”

‘Thus challenged, I evolved a priggish and not very effective sentence. “I leave you,” I said, “To derive what satisfaction you can from a lamentable exhibition. Good night.”’’

Hmmm. This so much follows the code of the times – that a woman did not go back to a man’s room unless she was willing for coitus and it was her fault if he got the wrong idea – that it is grimly laughable. I must remember that phrase, ‘masterful persuasion’ for future use in any stories of mine which might feature a would be rapist with a gift for euphemism.

What is disturbing for the modern reader, is that this is meant to be a sympathetic protagonist in a serious piece of literary writing, not some cardboard anti hero in escapist fiction. Obviously, if he failed with his ‘masterful persuasion’ it was because he was not violent enough to go through with it;  still the whole thing left me with a  distaste for Marcus Hendryks which his soul searing experiences as a volunteer  from the international corps in Spain couldn’t really eradicate.

Meanwhile, apart from suffering from malnutrition – which reduces his sexual frustration – he becomes politicised, and an uncritical socialist (why do these novels never portray a mature critical socialist rather than young, blinkered ones?  Not because there wen’t, or aren’t any: I suppose because there are less).

At first, in Spain, he drives a lorry of supplies – a dangerous enough job in an impossible vehicle – and gradually, he becomes drawn into the fighting and killing.

The author was, I gather, renowned as a pacifist, though also as a naval war hero during World War Two, commanding a frigate protecting supply ships in the Atlantic.  He was also mentioned in dispatches.

It seems he visited Spain just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and that this led to disillusion with his earlier rigid socialist ideas – which if they were anything like those of his protagonist, were fuelled too much by youthful idealism to be  able to survive the brutalities of war.

tumblr_mw12qfabeg1t00990o1_1280
Dead horses used as a barricade in the Spanish Civil War

Objectively, a war in support of democracy (the fascists had revolted to overthrow the democratically elected government) is not going to be any prettier than any other sort of war, although clearly it will never be as hideous as the sort of war of extermination that Hitler’s forces enacted on the Eastern front. Finally, though, it must be a brutalising experience.  Tragically, there are invariably atrocities in war and worst of all, innocents get maimed and killed; lives are ruined.

Injured and muddled, ‘”Half of me knows that we ought to take a crack at Fascism wherever the opportunity arises, and the other half has learnt, in Spain, that to join in that sort of struggle simply extends the chaos by one more man,”’ the protagonist returns to London with a wounded arm.

Then, dismally celebrating New Year in the London streets, he meets his future wife, a successful and comfortably off painter who doesn’t mind his shabby clothes, is willing to help him out financially and is eager to nurture him, wounded and traumatised as he is. She goes up to him – as the most melancholy person she has seen – and also, one suspects, as a man she finds attractive – and gives him a New Year’s kiss on the cheek, delighting him out of his melancholy.  I have to admit that I did find this scene sweet, for all my distaste over his earlier attempt on the showgirl Helga.

I did wonder what Anthea would have made of Hendryks’ ‘ behaviour with her, but perhaps she would think like a Nice Girl of the times, and say that Helga brought it on herself.  Certainly, there is no hint of ‘masterful persuasion’ with this woman, with whom he is besotted from the moment of the kiss, and who isn’t a showgirl in his room.

He makes it as a journalist with a little help from her, and the rest of the story is something of a damp squib after the strong chapters about poverty in the lodging house, the dark comedy of the horror of his former acquaintances over his metamorphases into a street orator, and  the terrible sights of the Spanish Civil War.

On the whole, this book is well worth reading and often strongly written, but the resolution after the climatic scene in the lorry in Spain – where Hendryks’ friend is killed and he in turn shoots dead the man who did it – goes on rather too long.  Well, that is always a temptation, and I suppose Monsarrat liked his hero rather more than I did and wanted to show him becoming a successful journalist, marrying and becoming a father.

The historical background is vivid (this was published in 1939).  It is not as informative on unemployment and poverty in the 1930’s UK as George Orwell’s journalism, of course, and not intended to be, but an interesting individual perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas reading: ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen – An Excellent Classic Ghost Story as Comedy

 

 

marshes

I wanted to add a post about a ghost story at Christmas. Well, I am about to read the new selection by Mari Biella, and expect to revel in those, but for now, which of the many to choose as a seasonal ghost story?

Readers of this blog over the last year or so will have endured my diatrabes on the  debilitating nature of an addiction to escapist romances and happy never after alternative views of history.  Fear not: this isn’t another…

I am in fact recomending – again, but now as Christmas reading – a  ghost story that is about as light as could be. It is also written from a wholly conventional perspective. The only eccentricity is that the protagonist is content to be that figure of horror and ridicule for previous generations,’The Old Maid’.  Still, as that was generally associated with comparative penury and economic dependence, perhaps the fact that she is a successful business woman – an unusual thing for the early twentieth century – has something to do with her contentment.

I think for sheer spooky humour,  ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ takes a lot of beating.

Marjory Bowen seems to have been an intriguing author. I was astonished to find out on Wickipedia that she wrote under six names:

‘Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell. After The Viper of Milan (1906), she produced a steady stream of writings until the day of her death.Bowen’s work under her own name was primarily historical novels.’

To say that she came from a ‘difficult’ background would be an understatement. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and was later found dead of drink on a London street. Her mother was seemingly a far from fond parent, and so she (Marjorie Bowen) was obliged to support the whole family by her writing for many years.  She was married twice – her fist husband died early, and both their children died in infancy. Her two children by her second husband survived, anyway…

From this, I had to be the more struck by the light, playful tone of ‘The Crown Derby Plate’. Although this is available on project Gutenberg and on Amazon as a Christmas story, the original publication date is not stated.

220px-ImariCI would guess, from the feel to it – and the fact that the heroine for her drive to the isolated house across the marshes uses as a matter of course, a pony and trap – that it was written no later than the 1920’s, before the car became common enough to have such a disastrous effect on our landscape (couldn’t possibly be an environmentalist, could I? But no ranting from me at Christmas)

It is not written as great literature, but as an effective ghost story which, unlike some of the others, is not intended to arouse deep emotion or raise questions. It could almost be used as an example of ‘How to write an entertaining ghost story with the use of humour and economy of style’.  It is set over the Christmas period, so was presumably written for some Christmas Annual or magazine for those days. Accordingly, the vocabulary is simple, and the tone is upbeat, even on such a topic as – for the women of the early twentieth century  a nightmare possibility  for themselves – the image of the Spinster Who Must Earn Her Keep:

‘Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a selection of delightful days.’

She is a collector of valuable china. Staying with her cousins in Essex for Christmas, she remembers that years ago she bought a set of Crown Derby plate from an auction at a local house, which unfortunately had one plate missing.

Her cousins remark that that house has a reputation for being haunted, its former owner, old Sir James Sewell, a collector of antique china, having been buried in the garden.

Martha Pym drives over to see if she can find out if the current owner, who she met and forgot two years ago, has found that missing plate.

index

The description of the wintry scene is evocative:

‘Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon; the olive brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost.  The air was cold but not keen; everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes…’

I quote that at length because so fine a word picture seems incongruous in such a light piece of writing. Marjorie Bowen obviously had exceptional talent, but wrote for the market, which often does not give much opportunity to show it to advantage.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,”  Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair.  (In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly.  “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

The reader doesn’t have a great talent for solving mysteries to begin to have suspicions about the house’s owner.

This is as excellent an example of the ghost story as light entertainment, as distinct from the ghost story which makes a profound impression and is written as literature, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There is no particular moral to ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ – unless it is the very obvious one that if you are too attached to material objects, then your spirit will be unable to move on.

I am astonished by the output of some of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors. Even given that they wrote for a living, however did they manage to get so much writing done – particularly when this was in an era when most of it was done in longhand?

 

 

 

 

‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ edited by Robert Aiman – Wonderful Classic Tales of Terror

1st fontana

I recently re-read ‘The Fontana Book of  Great Ghost Stories’ Edited by Robert Aikman, dated 1964.  I would still say that this is one of the best collections of tales of terror – not all of them are truly ghost stories – that I have ever read.

To some extent, I would say that for sheer spine tingling thrills, I have never found this collection to be beatable.

Of course, arguably some of it might be ‘learned response’ if that is the term. I did read it first at an impressionable age, and I was living in a notoriously haunted house at the time, the infamous and then isolated ‘Plas Isaf’.

My father, mother and sister were all in the house at the time; but they were corridors away as I foolishly sat up late, fnishing reading ‘The Wendigo’ by a dying fire, with the wind howling outside.

And yes, it did come from  – wait for it – those inexhuastable bookshelves in my family houses, like ‘The Outcast of the Family’  ‘Eve and the Law’ and so many others…

All the short stories in the anthology are written by renowned authors –the one by D H Lawrence, which naturally is largely psychologically based, came as a surprise.

There is also a very peculiar, and horrifying, tale which is more of a horror story, ‘The Travelling Grave’ written by L P Hartley, who of course wrote that wonderfully evocative tale of the Edwardian schoolboy in ‘The Go Between’.

The anthology contains some funny ghost stories. I still find ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen grotesquely hilarious, and there is an amusing tale about a landed pirate ship.

There are also ones on conventional lines – ‘The Old Nurses’ Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell is a wonderful example of the haunted house and threatened innocent variety. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ by Sheridan le Fanu is of course, another wonderful example of the traditional ghost story.

The tales of terror, include  some perturbing ones by comparatively recent authors, such as that sinister one about deserted waterways which has always puzzled me by Elizabeth Jane Howard  ‘Three Miles Up’. There is also one by the editor Robert Aikman, ‘The Trains’.

This is an extraordinary story; it is partly psychological, partly a tale of terror with horribly plausible elements, and it has many unexplained elements. It is set in the 1950’s, when trains were in fact, still the predominate form of transport for most people in the UK, before the sorry onset of car culture.

I can date the age I was when I read it, because that was the day I made my first apple crumble at school, and the scent of apple and cinnamon was in the air when we were re-heating it and I began reading, ‘The Wendigo’.  In fact, ‘The Wendigo’ will always make me think of apple crumble, and vice versa.

Wendigo

I still find ‘The Wendigo’  a truly terrifying story, for all the florid language of Défago when he is taken by it is so improbably poetic: ‘Oh, these fiery heights, my burning feet of fire’ etc.

My own prosaic memories about apple crumble aside, the depiction of those huge, Canadian forests, the Northern Woods, struck me with awe then and does to this day:

‘And now he was about to plunge even beyond the fringe of wilderness where they were camped into the virgin heart of uninhibited regions as vast as Europe itself…The bleak splendours of these remote and lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with a sense of his own littleness. The stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless and terrible, rose out of those far blue woods swimming on the horizon…’

It is an alarming story. Défego’s fate also seems to be unfair, in so far as he is not some casual tourist, viewing these secret regions for a thrill. On the contrary, he dreads the Wendigo as an apparition personifying the awe these forests should inspire:

‘”All the same, I shouldn’t laugh about it, if I was you,” Défego added, looking over Simpson’s shoulder into the shadows. “There’s places in there that nobody won’t ever see into. – Nobody knows what lives in there, either.”’

I must confess my ignorance as to whether that is still true today as it undoubtedly was in 1910, when this story was written,  before so much of the forest was destroyed. I assume it is, but I may well be wrong.

Algernon Blackwood, who of course, wrote the story, does seem to have changed the Native American legend, although I gather that there are many versions of the legend.

The Wickipedia entry states:

‘In Algonquian folklore, the wendigo or windigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada.[] The wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism,, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours.’

In these regions of harsh winters and traditional food shortages, to me that makes sense as the behaviour of the predatory Wendigo in Blackwood’s tale does not. It does not take its victims for food, but is described as a ‘moss easter’ and when the terribly damaged Défego returns from his sojourn with it, he reveals that he too has become ‘a damned moss eater’.

Therefore, the Wendigo does not take its victims to eat, and the sheer illogic of its bothering to take victims at all makes it the more horrible. I have heard that some of our relatives, the great apes, like humans, keep small orphaned baby animals as pets. Perhaps this is the explanation for the Wendigo’s behaviour?  Perhaps it doesn’t like people intruding on its domain.  Or – worse – perhaps its actions are meaningless to the human mind?

I thought one of the few weaknesses of the tale was the fact that it seems the Wendigo initially tries to pull the sleeping Défago from his tent.

That so powerful a monster should be temporarily defeated in this merely by Simpson’s wakening seem slightly absurd, though still horrible. The guide might even have been saved.

Another weakness is, of course, the racist assumptions about Native Americans of the era.  Inevitable though they may be for 1910, they are dismal to come across.

Overall, though, it is a powerfully written and wonderfully evocative story, and like all the stories in this anthology, it sums up images that you will never forget.

Perhaps one of the reasons that these stories are so good is that they come from an age when ‘short stories’ could begin at 3,000 words – ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ is this length – and go up to near novella length at approximately 14,000 words, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There was none of the modern pressure to write an extremely brief short story.

This post is too long for me to continue with accounts of the wonderfully comic, ‘The Crown Derby Plate’, or the puzzling and sinister story, ‘The Trains’. I will have to make that my next post.

 

 

Review of ‘Eve and the Law’ by Alice and Colin Askew (1905)

 

Askew, Alice photo

I have often written of how many writers combine both strong and sentimental writing in one novel, and that this is particularly true of many classic Victorian novelists such as Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. While it is a notorious fault with Charles Dickens, even Thackeray often descended into the maudlin. While for these greater writers, the sentimentality is less predominate, with other writers of popular fiction the weaker form of writing is often the main style.

I have just finished reading the melodramatic tale, ‘Eve and the Law’ by Alice and Claude Askew, published in 1905 – which makes it Edwardian. I mentioned it in my last post. This was part of the many job lots of books my mother bought at auctions to fill she shelves in the rambling, isolated old houses which she and my father used to renovate. It is probably long out of print,though it might be obtainable on Project Gutunberg and Internet Archieve and such sites.

The edition is ‘Collins 7d (that is, the old seven pennies) Modern Fiction.’ Books were too expensive for ordinary working people to buy then, but there were circulating libraries, and also, works of fiction were regularly serialised in the magazines, which were sometimes brought out annually in hard backed form.  Interestingly, this tradition of serialising books in women’s magazines continued until comparatively modern times, and I haven’t noticed if it has been discontinued or not.  I first read ‘Cheri’ in serial form in ‘Cosmopolitan’.

This story is unusual, of course, in being written by a man and a woman, and it seems to me that the strong writing style of the one and the sentimental style of the other alternate in an extraordinary way. (of course, it is possible that they both wrote sometimes weakly and sometimes forcefully).  This is combined with the strong religious theme typical of the period.

It made me think how much styles change over the years, particularly in popular novels, where the writers are aiming for mass appeal rather than originality.  The accepted style and content of one decade can bear little resemblance to that of the later one.

The plot of this tale of female sin and redemption is ludicrously improbable.

A French aristocratic rake named Felix Deschamps (later the Count d’Anvers) persuades a ‘well born’ English girl named Eve Hastings, who is already engaged to the hearty Sir John Almyer,  to have a runaway marriage with him. He has her tell her family that she has gone to France to study music, while keeping the true state of affairs quiet.

We know he is a villain from the description of his weedy physique and prominent teeth. But his dark curling hair and flashing black eyes and red sensual lips give him a charm that draw women to him. He is ‘tireless in pursuit of pleasure; he had an unquenchable thirst for enjoyment’.

…That will never do for a hero of this period.

Eve, who has the requisite golden hair and white skin of a Victorian heroine, spends an idyllic month with him in a forest near Fontainbleau. During this time, an old clerical friend of John Almyer, Jereome Meredith,  just happens to run into the couple; this novel, like many of its sort, is full of co-incidences.He takes one look at the villain’s face and decides that he and the young woman are in an irregular liaison. Psychic powers, or what?

Of course, he is proved correct. Suddenly, Flexi callously reveals that their marriage is not valid in France. Having heard that his uncle is dying and that he is to inherit he title, and having abruptly tired of living in a cottage in the forest with Eve, he decides to get rid of her.

Eve and the Law cover
It is very disappointing that I can’t ind a way to magnify these covers, the details of which are fascinating.

 

Eve goes back to England, and decides that she is free to marry her discarded fiancé and to make a new start.

Meanwhile, Felix d’Anvers is dismayed to find out that his dying uncle will only make Felix his heir if he agrees to carry on his uncle’s fight against the unjust laws which make an English marriage invalid in France.  The opportunistic Felix agrees, and goes hot footed back to the forest to make it up with Eve, only to find that she has gone.

He pursues her to England, and turns up on the day of her wedding. Here he meets Eve’s new sister-in-law, the lively Dorothy. He decides to forget about Eve and sends her back her discarded wedding ring. He and Dorothy are at once attracted to each other, take up a flirtatious correspondence, and later fall genuinely in love.

Meanwhile, Jerome Meredith comes back to take up the post of rector. He recognizes Eve from their previous meeting, but has scruples about revealing her secret, and marries them anyway.

Eve’s new husband dotes on her and she feels some guilt at keeping the truth from him. She falls in love with him, which is lucky for him, as he is one of the dullest, shadowy male leads I have encountered since the cardboard Charles Darney in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and Angel Clare in ‘Tess of D’ubervilles’.

Jerome goes to Italy and runs into Dorothy, with whom he has been in love for years. She is staying with her sister, who married another cad who considerately left her a young widow by blowing his brains out. Just why this detail is added to the story is never explained, as it does nothing to further the plot, but it adds to the Gothic atmosphere. Perhaps there is a hint that Dorothy does not learn by example? Certainly, John Almyer’s sisters seem to make a point of marrying undependable villains, as if rebelling against his example.

The austere Jerome’s faith is tried by his jealousy of Dorothy and Felix. Finally, on being rejected by Dorothy and on hearing of her engagement to the wicked Count, he goes to Fountainbleau to find out what he can of Felix’s former liaison with Eve. Here he falls off his horse and is looked after by an artist who just happens to have the same housekeeper as the one who kept house for Felix and Eve (co-incidences abound in this novel). She tells him all about Felix’s ways and Eve. He and the artist have many discussions. I assume the point of this is that Jerome’s narrow mind is opened.

It is certainly a good thing that the authors saw that many clerics were exceptionally narrow in their interpretation of Christianity, anyway; this also adds an incongruous level of seriousness to the plot which is at odds with the frequently weak style of writing.

When he has recovered, Jerome returns to England and when Eve refuses to admit to the truth, tells John Almyer ‘All about Eve’.  He is disgusted, and leaves to shoot big game on the Congo rather than himself.

Eve – astonishingly – comes to like and to place her faith in Jerome Meredith, which, given that he betrayed her after not speaking out at her wedding, is a remarkable piece of magnaminity.  Jerome, presumably through the influence of the artist and by suffering over his loss of Dorothy, has become kinder and less aesthetic.

Eve and the Law Second Cover
Just in case anyone might miss the significance of the erring heroine being called ‘Eve’…

Then Dorothy and Felix come to visit, a ridiculous situation treated without a jot of humour by the authors. Then Jerome is killed in saving Felix when his horse bolts.

Eve resolves to tell Dorothy the truth, but learning that she is having a baby, she keeps silent. Then she hears that John Almyer has been killed by ‘a savage tribe’ (perhaps they might have resented the European invaders?). She mourns excessively and lives in miserable penitence with her Aunt Letitia (a comic character, the trivial details of whose day are wittily recounted).

Meanwhile, Felix has become a successful politician with his campaigning against the marriage laws and is happy with Dorothy at the Château d’Anvers. He comes under the influence of the local priest Pere Joseph. Soon the superficial Felix, who looks forward to having an heir and becoming a respected politician, willingly makes an apparent repentance for his past life as a rake.

But then, Dorothy, on hearing of her brother’s death, falls in a faint down the front steps, killing both herself and her unborn child. She also dies disillusioned at the last moment with Felix, who shows his lack of spirituality by pleading with her to stay alive because he needs her (an entirely human response to the death of a young bride, I would have thought, but one which the authors believe shows a low spirit). Presumably this turning of the knife was regarded by them as necessary for her spiritual redemption.

I was sad about this wildly improbable end, which is clearly intended to be The Hand of Fate striking her down for marrying a bad man. The lively Dorothy is one of the most appealing characters in the book, far more endearing than Eve, who, apart from her outrageous act in eloping with Felix and going ahead with her wedding plans to John Almyer, is not particularly interesting. Even in her descent into bitterness and a dark night of the soul she somehow seems unreal.

Somehow, like Charles Dickens’ Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette,she never comes to life in the readers imagination, so she is an ideal mate for the dull sportsman and Strong Englishman John Almyer, who goes about quoting platitudes.

Felix is overcome with grief at Dorothy’s death, and Pere Joseph tries to use this to make him truly religious. Pere Joseph suspects that he is insincere in his dramatic repentance for his former rakish ways, even when he confesses his betrayal of Eve.

Then, Felix makes the improbable decision to go to England and persuade Eve of her sin (presumably, her sin in having bigamously married John Almyer in England rather than in living accidentally outside wedlock with him). This is so clumsy a plot device to get him in England that I was startled. However, writers of this type of romantic melodrama did this sort of thing all the time, and seemingly got away with it with their readers, at least in that their books continued to sell.

index
Perhaps the story was serialised in this.

Eve has, however, received news from John Almyer’s  companion on the expedition that John Almyer is not dead. John Almyer apparently wishes to surprise Eve, but the friend thinks the shock would be bad for her and writes to warn her of his return.

He has survived weeks of torture at the hands of the ‘Natives’. Presumably this was done just for the fun of it, for it is never explained why they didn’t just kill him off, and it is never hinted that he had some knowledge which they wanted. Now he returns to England – seemingly unscathed in body and mind, being an English hero.

Naturally, Felix d’Anvers arrives on the same night as his rival. Overcome once more by Eve’s attractions (though he had been so bored with them in Fontainbleau) he forgets his spiritual mission. John Almyer walks in on them and misunderstands the situation.

Eve assures him he is wrong.

The two men have a dramatic fight in the firelight (Eve was waiting for her husband with the lights off to flatter her complexion, as one does).

Then, having sent Eve up to her room, John Almyer leaves the room himself, providing the unconscious Felix with a gun with which to shoot himself or to shoot his rival when he returns. John Almyer tells Eve he foresees no happiness for them and doesn’t care if he lives or dies (it is not explained why in that case, he bothered surprising her by his return – a lover like gesture). Felix, however, he says, will be too cowardly to do either.

Eve runs down to prevent murder, and Felix runs off into the night, proving himself  ‘the cur’ which Jerome and John Almyer have always called him.  Eventually, pursued by spirits either real or imaginary, he runs into the quarry from which Jerome Meredith saved him before.

This end put me in mind of the end of another Villain of the Piece, Stannard Marshbank in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’. It really doesn’t do to go running about by quarries in the dark of the moon, but Villains of the Piece will do it.

Eve reminds John Almyer that ‘Adam forgave Eve’. (I think that Eve had to do some forgiving too, as he had told tales with his excuse, ‘The woman did tempt me and I did eat’ but that’s irrelevant here).  John  Almyer decides that they can be happy after all, as like Adam and Eve they can ‘go out into the world according to God’s holy ordinance’,  and the story ends with her realising that like the first woman: ‘She would become mother to life and that Christus had redeemed Adam’.

A fittingly devout end to a story about sin and temptation. I wholly dislike the notion of a Creator of wrath rather than of mercy. It is not only in the quality of the writing that I find this work wholly inferior in tone to say, Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ also about an unrepentant rake, but in the breadth of spiritual understanding.

However, as I say, there are oddly contrasting passages where strong writing takes over from the normal superficially melodramatic tone. Here is one:

‘Who is coming down the road, I wonder…Don’t you see the ‘rider on the white horse’ Felix? Now, where have I come across the line before…’ The girl spoke in bright, careless tones, wholly forgetful that the line she referred to so cheerfully came from the Book of Revelation: but Felix remembered, and he muttered uneasily, “‘I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death.’”… “Who is morbid now?” she asked. “I don’t think the postboy would be pleased to hear us, for it is Francis riding up with the letter bag, Felix.”

Despite the humour of this wholly prosaic revelation (there is an odd combination of humour and deadly seriousness in this melodrama) the letter is the one about the death of her brother which will cause her to faint and fall to her death. There is an excellent piece of dramatic build up:

‘The warm, hazy afternoon was changing into a sinister evening; heavy rainclouds were drifting up, swarms of dark, noisome gnats and insects were whirring through the air, and steaks of yellow light, presaging storm, appeared in the sky. The runner came in sight. He was one of the footmen from the château, the same fair, florid young man who had been in Count Raoul’s death chamber, summoned there to witness the dying cousin’s will. Directly Felix caught sight of the young man, a terrible fear and dread came over him; his face turned livid, and he clutched at Pere Joseph for support.’

That is just the way to write Gothic! Over-the-top it will necessarily be: weak and sentimental it never should be, as in the scene on Eve’s wedding morning: ‘”I have brought your breakfast tray up,” laughed Dorothy, opening the door with one hand and supporting the dainty little tray with the other. “All the servants clamoured for the honour, Eve, but I said it was the privilege of the bridesmaid to serve the bride.”’

I would like to think that the strong writing came from both the male and female partners, but I do wonder. Many woman writers of romance have an unlucky tendency towards sentimentality to this day: whether this is done to appeal to the wider readership, or an innate fault in their style, is unclear.  Still, I have commented on Charles Dickens and Thackeray’s maudlin tendencies, so perhaps it was the man as well.

Claude_Askew_in_Serbian_uniform